On the Contrary

Copernicus went out on a limb to demonstrate that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Galileo proved gravity does not discriminate based on race, creed, color, or mass. Mary Karlzen just wants to show that lightning can strike twice in the same place.

A singer/songwriter who is probably best known for her stint as bass player for original rockers Vesper Sparrow, Karlzen has teamed up with Y&T Music maven Richard Ulloa to produce a CD featuring ten of her tunes that the tandem hope will pick up where Ulloa's earlier venture into CD production left off -- with a major-label contract. That earlier disc was the Mavericks' eponymously named debut, and it was by most accounts instrumental (no pun intended) in getting MCA's undivided attention for that band. While the Y&T/Mavs disc sold better than expected, it wasn't exactly a financial windfall. Ulloa shrugs off the fact that he hasn't made any money off the Mavs' CD. "The Mavericks CD was something I did for the music," he says. "You can't buy the kind of satisfaction I've gotten from seeing the results of that project."

Ulloa believes he has a talent of similar proportions in Karlzen. It just took him a while longer to convince her, for Karlzen is a reluctant solo artist. While it takes a certain amount of ego to want to be a popular musician in the first place,

Karlzen prefers the safety-in-numbers security of a full band to the high-wire, no-net risks of a solo venture. Without Ulloa's push, it's unlikely Karlzen would have been up for a task as daunting as recording an entire CD.

But motivation is Ulloa's middle name. He could make a killing at seminars, if only he were willing to get a haircut and trade in his collection of band T-shirts for Armani suits. The Yesterday & Today Records owner is so optimistic about his musical ventures he makes Dave Del Dotto look like a defeatist chump.

Together the unlikely team has fashioned a CD (slated for January release) that may well attract a few bolts of major-label lightning. It doesn't hurt their chances any that the Mavericks' crack rhythm section (Paul Deakin on drums, Bobby Reynolds on bass) lend their considerable talents to a half-dozen tracks, or that the Kendall cowpokes' head honcho, Raul Malo, sings back-up on one song while Ben Peeler contributes banjo and mandolin colorings to another. But the focal point of this disc, and the axis about which its fortunes are most likely to spin, is the high quality of Karlzen's songwriting.

The big surprise for anyone who knew Karlzen when she was a Sparrow is that this roots rocker has a country heart. Granted that's not as big of a shock as it would have been if she had come out with, say, a groove-heavy compendium of dance tunes a la Paula Abdul, but it's still not what one might have expected from a former member of a hard-rockin' alternative band. "You know how as you get older you go from denying all of your parents' influences to a point where you find yourself reliving them?" Karlzen says. "My parents, especially my father, were really into country music. I listened to it all the time when I was growing up. And now I find myself doing it."

The disc opens with a whisper rather than a scream in "Night of a Million Moons," an atmospheric ode to the childhood innocence lost. "Have you ever just had a feeling from your childhood or your past hit you unexpectedly, like a moment you recall perfectly, you just see it really clearly and it feels like it's real to you, not just a memory?" Karlzan explains. "That's the basis for `Night of a Million Moons.'"

If you've never experienced such a moment for yourself, then perhaps the song's depictions of a time "when the summers were as endless as the days and the nights as lazy..." can help you to understand what she's talking about. But for every night of a million moons there's a "future which dawned all too soon," and you can reach for the light, but you can't "stop the past somehow from colliding with what is now."

Karlzen doesn't like to explain her lyrics. She is wary of what she calls "the MTV effect," where you hear a song and generate a mental picture to accompany it, and then you see the video or an interview with the songwriter and realize they had something completely different in mind, thereby ruining the song for you forever. She prefers to let listeners conjure up their own images, and on this CD the brew is likely to kindle reminiscences of a certain Jersey poster boy's songwriting, particularly his Nebraska album. Indeed, Karlzen is no stranger to the badlands, and in "Swinging on His Arm" she sings of climbing up on a haystack to survey a landscape where "not one tree broke the ground." The rhythm section on this song also suggests a Boss-y influence, particularly recalling the guitar and bass lines from "I'm on Fire."

"Swinging on His Arm" is the CD's high point, the song most likely to grab an A&R person's ear and not let go. The MTV effect notwithstanding, the song is another ode to days gone by that flirts with melancholy without wallowing in it. As Karlzen puts it, "I'd give everything I own/For just a taste of yesterday," to hear her father calling out her name, to be able to run out to the fields and swing on daddy's arm. A deadly eye for detail and a knack for evocative imagery inform all of the songs here.

"Dressed in White" is a haunting tune with an equally eerie tale behind its creation. "Chuck [Anton, who plays fiddle throughout the disc] was playing a song for me on his fiddle while I worked out the chords on my guitar," Karlzen says. "I had never heard the song before and Chuck had no idea where it came from. So I went home and started writing lyrics for it and the words just came to me. It just flowed. I wrote it about a woman who is jilted by her lover on her wedding day and never gets over it, never marries. I was kind of influenced by that Katherine Anne Porter story The Jilting of Granny Wetherall. When I played it for Chuck, he loved it. Then we were playing at Washington Square one night and a friend of Chuck's heard the song and told us he knew the original tune. It was an Irish folk song called `Maid on a Bridge,' about a woman who gets jilted on her wedding day and never gets over it."

Spooky story or no, the song is a scorcher, with Anton's fiddle leading the way and Deakin's drumming propelling from behind. As with most of Karlzen's songs, the cut walks a fine line between country and rock, not unlike (surprise, surprise) many of the Mavericks' tunes. Guitarist/collaborator/soulmate Mark Scandariato, formerly of Beat the Press, probably has a lot to do with the rock influence. Says Karlzen, "Mark is totally unselfish and puts his ego aside to do what's best for the song, not just his part within the song."

Karlzen, ever the reluctant soloist, is putting together a band to back her up at club dates supporting the CD's January release. Scandariato and Anton will likely play a large role, but it will still be Mary Karlzen's name and voice out front. "It may be harder to push the CD first and then put the band together than it would have been the other way around," admits Karlzen. "But this has been a labor of love."

That pretty much sums up Ulloa's feelings as well. "I know we're really bucking the odds with this project," he says, "that doing a CD and trying to get Mary signed as a solo artist won't be easy. Even Stevie Nicks started out as part of a band; the labels didn't want to really take her on a solo basis until after Fleetwood Mac was successful. This has been a huge commitment, time-wise and dollar-wise, but I really believe in Mary. I believe in the music."

And maybe, just maybe, in lightning striking twice.

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